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SPECIAL ISSUE / WINTER GETAWAYS : Destination: Yellowstone
National Park

Silent Wilderness

Elk, buffalo and cross-country skiers share trails in geyser territory

December 08, 1996|BARBARA RAY | Ray is a freelance writer based in Chicago

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — The back seat of a two-door Toyota stopped on a tight mountain curve is not the best place to be when a hemmed-in buffalo decides to get unhemmed. but that's where I was on an early evening in February in Yellowstone National Park.

The buffalo had ambled around the bend just as we had driven from the other direction. There was no way around him and we couldn't back our way home. So, with a buffalo closing in at a trot, we threw the car in reverse and began to inch through a nine-point turn, trying desperately not to sink into the snow on the side of the narrow road. Getting out and pushing with a one-ton buffalo bearing down was not high on our vacation agenda.

Our cross-country ski trip to Yellowstone had begun as an idea hatched by a group of snow-starved expatriate teachers living on Guam. Meet in Yellowstone our first winter back in the U.S., went the plan.

You couldn't call us outdoorsy. Mike, a New York City transplant to Montana, and his girlfriend, Zan, had actually camped before, making them our experts. As for me and my husband, Rex, our skiing experience consisted of a bout on a NordicTrack,which we both abandoned after falling off.

Yellowstone, in northwestern Wyoming, is the nation's first and, at 43,750 square miles, largest national park. Founded in 1872, it is probably most famous for its more than 200 geysers, including Old Faithful. Unlike the Yellowstone of summer, however, Yellowstone in winter is a world of silence. Gone are the RVs and campers. Paths trampled with footprints are replaced with snowfields mottled with animal tracks.

In Yellowstone, cross-country skis, ice skates, snow shoes and snowmobiles give winter the joy of a no-school snow day. Winter is also the best time to see wildlife. Elk abandon the high country for the food and milder weather of the plateaus around the tourist centers of Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful. Coyotes stretch in the sun atop boulders. Buffalo (zoologically, the American buffalo is really a bison) in their shaggy winter coats lumber slowly across snowfields and, as we discovered, onto the roads.

Winter can be brutal here. Temperatures can plunge to 10 below, far lower with wind chill. The air snaps off like an icicle. The cold snatches your breath away. All is white: rabbits, roads, valleys, mountainsides. Shadows stretch long. It was just what we beached islanders needed.

For our rendezvous, we chose Mammoth Hot Springs resort, tucked in a valley of thermal wonders a short jaunt from the park's northwestern gate at Gardiner, Mont. Only lodgings at Mammoth and Old Faithful Snow Lodge 50 miles to the south stay open in the winter. Mammoth is accessible by car; a Sno-Cat--a van with huge snowmobile treads--shuttles guests from Mammoth or Flagg Ranch (a private resort just a few miles south of the southern entrance) to Old Faithful in a three-hour trip.

We had left our home in Chicago the night before for a flight to Bozeman, Mont., where we met Mike and Zan, who had driven in from their home in Missoula, Mont. We got a late start the next morning and arrived at Gardiner in midafternoon. The drive from Bozeman on a clear, sunny February day was stunning, and the beauty only improved once inside the park.

The Gallatin Range, with its great slides of rugged mountain capped in white was to the west. Elk with white-target rumps huddled in thickets of brown brush. Landscape, salt-stained road, brush and valley all were bleached of color and thrown in stark relief against the blue sky.

*

Mammoth consists of a main hotel and a pair of two-story buildings housing bare-bones rooms. The resort still has a glimmer of the military barracks it once was. Built in the late 1800s on grounds occupied by the U.S. Cavalry, the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel was one of the first accommodations in a national park. Our rooms, in one of the lodge's annexes, were spartan, with no television or phones.

The main hotel is rustic, with ceiling-to-floor windows that flood the main rooms with soft winter sun. Elk mingle or nap on the front lawn. The reception area is abutted by the grand Map Room, which is filled throughout the day with weary skiers sipping hot tea or in the evenings with music from a grand piano. The room's namesake, covering the north wall, looks like an enormous wooden jigsaw puzzle of the United States.

Near the main buildings, wood-paved footpaths climb and weave among terraces of pink, yellow and green limestone and calcium. No longer competing with summer's vibrancy, the soft terrace colors stand out amid the white of winter.

Thermal pools abound. Hot springs and bubbling mud spew steam from the basement of the earth. Globs of calcified rock dot the landscape, their crevices seeping with steaming water.

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